If Australia has a narrative thread that runs through its post-colonial history, it must be the unfolding story of how it relates to the vast continent to its northwest. Almost from the time of the arrival of the First Fleet, Asia has tugged at the connections and self-images that Australia has forged for itself. Whether it was shiploads of iron ore to imperial Japan or container vessels of wheat to pre-recognition China, Asia has wanted what Australia has in abundance, with an insistence that overrides Canberra's strategic or diplomatic priorities.

A new chapter in this narrative began a few years ago. It started with the global financial crisis, which pitched America and Europe into the prolonged doldrums alongside Japan, leaving the global economic stage to a collection of surging emerging economies, most significantly in Asia.

At around that time, China became Australia's largest trading partner, taking our security and prosperity interests potentially in different directions for the first time in our history. And on top of all that, the US elected a man determined to weave the narrative of a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia into American foreign policy: the 'Pacific presidency' that delivered the US 'pivot' back to Asia.

Last year I argued that economic linkages and strategic competition were forging a new 'Indo-Pacific era' that will see the centre of global production, exchange and strategic competition run much closer to Australia's northern shorelines than ever before. This will make even our small decisions the subject of jealous scrutiny among a collection of Indo-Pacific great powers. The onus is on us, I argued, to become much more interested and knowledgeable about Asia, so that the choices we have to make are informed by society-wide, knowledge-rich debates and discussions.

On 28 September 2011, the Prime Minister delivered an important speech on Australia-Asia relations, in which she announced the commissioning of a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. This is an important initiative, but hugely challenging for the Task Force led by Ken Henry. The Prime Minister has asked Dr Henry and his team three basic questions:

  1. What's actually happening in Asia, where is it leading, and what are the implications for Australia?
  2. What are the opportunities to be seized and the challenges to be managed in this process?
  3. What are the broader foreign policy and institutional mechanisms that Australia can suggest, lead and/or participate in to manage this era of strategic change?

Each of these questions is worthy of a White Paper in itself, and each will call forth a range of different responses. Already Dr Henry and his team have collected over 300 submissions and engaged in broad consultations.

The Lowy Institute is delighted to host this blog feature on Australia in the Asian Century, supported by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, in the interests of making this a genuinely broad discussion about Australia's relations with the continent of Asia. Over the next four months, it will host frequent contributions to the discussion of the White Paper's central themes from across Australia and around the world. The evolving debate will be closely followed by Dr Henry and his team.

I encourage you to follow and contribute to this important conversation in our national narrative.

Photo by Flickr user Pranav Bhatt.